Rod Lurie directs the controversial remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, which finds a young couple (James Marsden and Kate Bosworth) moving to a quaint southern town. Soon, though, their perfect getaway turns into a living hell when dark secrets and lethal passions spiral out of control. Trapped by a pack of depraved locals led by a ruthless predator (Alexander Skarsgård), they face a night of agonizing suffering and endless bloodshed. Their only hope for survival is to become more savage than their merciless tortures.
Straw Dogs makes its awaited debut on Blu-ray and DVD today, Tuesday, December 20th. To celebrate this release, we caught up with star James Marsden to go in-depth into the making of this modern day classic thriller.
Here is our conversation.
Most actors, when they take on a remake of a so-called classic movie, claim to stay away from both the original film, and the original performance of the character that they are recreating. Here, though, it seems that just the change in how men are culturally perceived from the early 70s, when the first movie was made, to today, demands that you go back and look at what Dustin Hoffman did. Just to get a feel for the man he was creating in that specific time period. And how to make that different for a new age…
James Marsden: I watched the original several times. I do know actors who are that way. Who do not want to be affected by the original. Having it be a blank canvas. Whatever they create, they create. I just felt that there was so much history behind this movie. And its Dustin Hoffman…You are stepping into his shoes, and that is a daunting task. Actors are different. I am one of those actors who can look at it, and separate it from what I am doing. I can find my own path. I studied the first movie. I wanted to find out what really worked about the original. I also wanted to find out where it could be different. To me, whatever time period you are working with in terms of this story, it’s about being stripped of all your social civilities. You are being forced to kill or be killed. You have to resort to your animal instincts. It transcends what era you are operating in. The pacifism that is David Sumner? In 1969, it was all about the Vietnam War. Dustin Hoffman’s David was avoiding being enlisted. That was the first real introduction to the character, his pacifism…He tends to avoid confrontation if he can. Even if it’s a logical avoiding of the confrontation. In this one, we are moving down to the South so I can write my screenplay. It is a little different, because back then, violence had a stronger voice. It was more threatening. It was scary. Unfortunatly, we are now living in a society where we see so much, with movies and Youtube, and everything else…Its tough to get people shocked, to be honest.
One of the great things that director Rod Lurie does with this version, in terms of the confrontations, is how giant and looming he makes Alexander Skarsgard seem. I mean, you’re not a little guy. And he towers over you in some of these climactic end scenes. How challenging was it to choreograph some of the fights, keeping that visual perspective in mind?
James Marsden: I’ll be honest, they accentuated that some. But they didn’t have to fake it too much. Alexander Skarsgård is 6’3. I’m 5’10. What you see on screen sometimes is not exaggerated. Though, sometimes, Rod Lurie chose to do specific angles that did accentuate his physical prowess over me. And his imposing nature. With the fight at the end of the movie? We were almost finished shooting. So Alexander and I got a little crazy. We choreographed it, obviously. But when the cameras rolled, we were really trying to hurt each other. And that was painful. Especially since I was the smaller guy. The other thing I found challenging was…I like to think of myself as an athletic guy. I am a pretty coordinated guy. But I also never thought that I was David. So I often found myself having to pretend like I’m not a fighter. I can throw a punch. I know how too. I don’t know that David does. So here you are, acting as if you are more uncomfortable fighting someone than you really would be. (Laughs) So, that was interesting. I don’t know if a lot of people who see the movie take that into account. They just think that Marsden is a pussy. They thing that I can’t fight. But hey, I am acting like the character. He is an intellectual. And he doesn’t fight. His principles are not aliened with those locals in BFE Mississippi, where you solve every problem with violence. I don’t think that David would be very good at throwing a punch. So I was having to act like I couldn’t. But when Alexander Skarsgård is throwing me up against the wall, and he is throwing me into furniture, knocking the crap out of me…Essentially, he is really doing that to me. I thought, “Hey if I get injured, at least the movie is in the can!” Some of the more painful things were not necessarily being launched into a wall, but there was this last bit, right before he gets the bear trap on him. He has a gun against my forehead. Alexander is gripping my scalp, and almost pulling my hair out. And he is pressing this real gun barrel into the skin of my forehead. It was probably one of the more painful things I have ever felt. No one wants to be a hero actor. No one wants to do that, if you know its not going to be good for the movie. We did a couple of takes like that. If we had of kept going, I would have told him to ease off.
You bring up the bear trap. How real, and how functioning was that? It has a real weight on screen in some of those scenes. And there seems to be a real tension amongst the actors that you just can’t fake when you are messing around with something like that…
James Marsden: There were two traps. One was a real bear trap, made of iron. There was another one that was made of foam. It was still working. It had a hinge, and everything. Obviously, the one that went over Alexander’s head was the foam one. Actually, when you see me swing it and put it over his head, I think that is CGI. When it cuts back to him, that is the foam one. That is the magic of movies. But every other time you see it, where I am pulling it off the wall, and they are setting it? That is a real bear trap. Here is an interesting fact, a tidbit about this movie…Anytime we needed to be nervous, or we had to jump, instead of having us fake it…There is this scene where the bear trap snaps closed. We had a prop guy with a gun. He would fire blanks anytime we needed it. A lot of times during the siege, if we needed to react to something, he would fire that blank. Because your body instinctually reacts like it should react to a gunshot. It can be anything. Like the truck crashing through the back door, anything…They would fire this gun just to set our nerves off. They would catch us off guard, and keep our energy up.
I had a couple of questions about the end of the movie. There are no deleted scenes included on the disc. Were there extra scenes shot that explain where Walton Goggins’ character is during the siege? Or whether or not the fifteen-year-old girl lived or died? There are a couple of unanswered questions here…
James Marsden: That was something that was left open in the original as well. James Woods’ character and his boys are acting on the assumption that the girl is dead. Or that something has happened to her. That Dominic Purcell’s character has done something to her, somehow. They didn’t need to know for sure to do what they do throughout the entire film. Whether or not Rod Lurie shot additional footage with her? I am not completely sure, to be honest. Just going off the original, there was nothing explained. And you never find out what happened to Walton Goggins’s character. Once the train starts going, and the siege happens, everything else is left behind. I don’t know if he shot something extra with Walton that would clear up where he was, or answer what happened to him. My feeling is no. That he did not shoot anything. I don’t think Walton showed up at the siege. I would have been there for that. Like the original, there are a few loose ends that Rod Lurie tried to correct. Like when James Woods’s character gets shot in the foot, and he gets the boiling oil thrown on his face. In the original, that character just sort of runs off screaming. You never see him again. He’s not dead. In this new film, we put him to rest. This is a better question for Rod, because I don’t know what other editing options there were.
I like it when a movie leaves some questions unanswered. It keeps you thinking about the film, and what it was about. And this certainly nods to the original. I just thought maybe there were missing scenes…
James Marsden: Oh, yeah. There are always deleted scenes. I don’t remember any specifically off the top of my head. I think the first cut of this movie was three hours long. There was a bunch of stuff taken out. But I don’t think there is anything that is missed. It’s all there. I just can’t think of anything off the top of my head. Other than a few other arguments between Amy and David, mine and Kate Bosworth’s character. I don’t know specifically. Its been awhile since I saw the movie.
I want to get your take on, what I thought was, one of the more interesting scenes in the film. We see David shoot a deer and kill it, right as Alexander Skarsgård’s character, who is raping Amy, climaxes. What does that moment represent to you in the scheme of the overall storyline?
James Marsden: David doesn’t know what is happening at the house. The audience does. At that moment, David is getting in touch with his animal instincts. Metaphorically, the way its edited, with him climaxing just as David shoots the deer…That, again, is a better question for Rod. That is something that is similar to the original. But I think Rod timed it specifically, right up next to those two images, which I thought was an interesting choice. I can only speak for David. At the time, he is realizing that he feels like a coward. He is realizing that he has been duped by these guys. He realizes that the future is laden with foreboding. He is reexamining his principles and philosophies about how he deals with conflict. That is, I guess, the theme of David shooting the deer. The metaphorical arc. As for showing those two things at the exact same moment? Again, that’s really not my call. That is a Rod question. But it is a climax of violence, for sure. That is the common thing in both of those scenes that are enter-cut. The climaxing of the violence of both moments. On the one hand, he is climaxing, but it is the peak of her violent assault. I do know, there at the end, when David is trying to calm Amy down, he pushes her hair back, and he pats her. He even says, “Easy.” To hear. That is what she says to Alexander Skarsgård when he is essentially raping her. Its all these things that come flooding back to her. Now her husband is petting her. Just like he did the deer. But he is also saying, “Easy.” Which is what she said during the rape. Those are Rod’s brush strokes in his movie.
At least you know what has gone into the scene. At least you have thought about it. Sometimes you ask an actor about a scene. And you get a blank stare back at you.
James Marsden: This was a movie that required you to do your homework. Though, my homework was done while we were shooting the movie, and while we were doing press when the movie came out. I haven’t really thought about it in-depth since then. It would have helped to recall if I’d seen it recently, to answer some of this. I certainly wouldn’t have taken on the role if I didn’t understand the responsibility of it. There is a lot to this character.
In terms of doing homework for the role…How much does that play into the scenes where we see you actually sitting down to write this screenplay, that David is in the middle of working throughout the course of the film?
James Marsden: I am not a method actor. You don’t have to be method to do research. I certainly researched it as much as I could. I wanted to know what he was writing about. Rod was extremely helpful in supplying the information about Stalingrad, and he got me a few DVDs to watch, to familiarize myself with what the Russians were dealing with in Germany during that battle. It was important to learn what David was writing about. He learns what these soldiers had to deal with. They were backed into a corner and they had to fight for their lives. That is a parallel to what David has to do at the end of the movie. I watched the original film as much as possible. There was so much history involved with this movie, I had to make sure I steeped myself in that. Make sure I wasn’t completely duplicating Dustin Hoffman’s performance. At the end of the day, your script is your blueprint. It’s yours to make. It’s you and the other actors, and the director. You want to go out and put your stamp on it. I went out and did the necessary research, and I think, up to a certain point, you can make it your own.
What has your perception of the reaction to this new version been? Usually there is some backlash, or hateful complaints pointed at most remakes. Here, after it came out, I didn’t really notice that with Straw Dogs. People accepted it as its own thing…
James Marsden: A lot of people who haven’t seen the movie…Look, it’s a polarizing movie. In both content and the exercise of remaking a movie that is viewed by many to be a real classic. It’s never, in its DNA meant to be a movie that will please everybody. That isn’t something we put on the board. We didn’t put much value in pleasing everybody. That said, when people hear about Hollywood remaking a classic, people are up in arms about it. Nobody is happy. Especially if fans have a lot of affection for it. But I have to tell you…As much as I love the original, it is a flawed movie. Is it a classic? Absolutely. But it’s certainly something…There is the latitude there to put your own take on it. You can improve on a few things. I know that sounds arrogant. It is Sam Peckinpah after all. But its not like we’re remaking Gone With the Wind. I was happy when Roger Ebert gave it two thumbs up. And the New York Times gave it a good review. A lot of publications that I respect were really happy with our final product. I am proud of it. It’s a tough movie. But it’s innately controversial. And it will innately be controversial. You don’t want it to not be.